Interview with Reuben Muhindi Wambui

Global Shapers Zurich
7 min readFeb 8, 2022

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“One thing I learned early on is that, regardless of the initiative, it is very important to have a good grasp of the science — the science of climate change ”

Bio: Reuben Muhindi Wambui is an economist working on climate risk and sustainability in finance. He currently works as the Africa Regional Coordinator at UNEP Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) where he leads the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) regional work. Prior to joining UNEP FI, he worked at McKinsey and Crédit Suisse, and has experience working in multiple countries in Africa and Europe. In 2019, his writing on sustainable finance was awarded the prestigious St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award, out of over 800 entries from 100+ nationalities. He has also conducted research for the World Bank and UNICEF, in addition to publishing articles for the Kenya Bankers Association (KBA), eCahiers de l’Institut, and Africa Policy Journal of Harvard Kennedy School. Reuben holds a master’s degree in International Economics from the Graduate Institute Geneva and was awarded the Rudi Dornbusch Prize for the best thesis in International Economics. Reuben is keen to advance climate resilience and adaptation, namely through the Net-Zero Africa initiative, which he recently founded.

Reuben kindly took the time to sit down virtually with Catherine McDonald, a Global Shaper at the Zurich Hub, to speak about his work and interest in the field of sustainability.

Catherine McDonald (CM): What was your motivation for engaging in the field of sustainability? Was there a transition or a specific trigger behind it?

Reuben Muhindi Wambui (RMW): There were two trigger points for entering the field of sustainability. First, I attended the UNLEASH Global Innovation Hub in Singapore. At this global gathering, we were young leaders selected from around the world, working on ideas relating to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). However, during the ideation sessions, I noticed there was less focus on how to address the financing gap in order to fund the really good SDG ideas. Sustainability makes sense to me, but the big question is how are we going to finance sustainable development? In particular, how do we mobilize private capital from the finance sector? Given that I had a background in strategy consulting from McKinsey as well as training in economics, I realized I wanted to be at the intersection of sustainable economic development and private capital.

Second, coming to grad school at the Graduate Institute in Geneva provided the perfect space to get acquainted with the sustainability agenda, given that it is one of the “sustainability capitals” of the world. It was during my time in Geneva that I gained a better understanding of the field through my studies and interactions, as well as during a summer role working at Crédit Suisse in Zurich, where I was working on the TCFD climate change program. This helped me narrow down my interest in sustainability to climate financial risks and mainstreaming sustainability in finance.

CM: What is your impact? How do you contribute directly to the field of sustainability?

RMW: In my work, the goal is to help banks, insurers and investors integrate sustainable business practices in their governance, strategy and operations. This includes taking into consideration issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution in their business, as well as social issues such as inclusion and gender equality. As we all know by now, there are many frameworks in this space to measure impact. Personally, I see it being achieved through three key aspects. First, with knowledge resources, we support actors in the finance sector on how to approach sustainability issues. Second, we provide tools such as impact management tools. Third, impact is achieved by mobilizing collective industry progress through alliances such as the Net Zero Banking Alliance and the Net Zero Insurance Alliance. These alliances provide a platform for collective progress, peer to peer exchange and thought leadership. On the latter aspect, I have written multiple articles and I regularly write on LinkedIn and Twitter on the topic of sustainable finance and the green transition.

Beyond my job, I also lead an initiative called Net-Zero Africa, where we seek to accelerate climate action in Africa in the context of Africa’s climate adaptation gaps and the differing needs of the 54 states. At Net-Zero Africa we also provide a platform for accelerating climate funding opportunities in Africa, to help match climate-aligned projects and climate funders. More information is available on our website.

CM: What challenges did you face when commencing your career in the field of sustainability? Are you still facing these challenges?

RMW: When I started in the field of sustainability, it was challenging as the topic was very novel to me. Even today, everyone talks about the SDGs and climate change, but many people and sources remain blurry when it comes to the in-depth details. As a result, it can be a challenge to filter through the noise. Additionally, as my training in economics and finance was not specific to sustainability, I have had to continuously learn new things to close this knowledge and skills gap while building my voice in the field. It has been a positive challenge. I want to keep building credibility, which means that it is an ongoing learning process. One thing I learned early on is that it is very important to have a good grasp of the science — the science of climate change — regardless of the initiative you are involved in within the sustainability and climate space.

CM: Was there ever a point where you were about to quit or thought it might be easier to take a different path?

RMW: No, I am so passionate about the topic and the impact I see in my work, that I have never thought of quitting. I also wrote my essay for the St. Gallen Symposium (SGS) on the topic.

CM: Are there people who have supported you along the way? Do you have a mentor/role model/someone who inspired you from the beginning?

RMW: There are many people who have supported me along the way and there are many others in the field who I find inspiring. Within the field, I find the Head of UNEP FI, Eric Usher, very inspiring and thoughtful, particularly due to his thinking on how to best engage the private finance sector. At an organizational level in Africa, I am inspired by the strategic thinking of the African Development Bank (AFDB) led by President Adesina, which is committing 40% of the bank’s funding to climate finance. Other inspirations include Anthony Nyong (Africa Regional Director, Global Centre on Adaptation), Christina Figueres (ex-Executive Secretary, UNFCCC), Ben Caldecott (Director, Oxford Sustainable Finance), and Kate Mackenzie (Expert, Centre for Policy Development). Within the financial regulation space in Africa, I also like the climate change agenda led by the Governor of the Bank of Mauritius, Harvesh Seegolam.

CM: What do you wish to happen in your field in the future?

RMW: I want to see more financial flows towards climate adaptation efforts in developing nations, especially to small island developing states like Barbados and to the African nations ravaged by the risk of floods and droughts. Remember, half of the 10 countries most affected by climate change are in Africa (Global Climate Risk Index 2021).

CM: Looking back, are there any key learnings or experiences that stand out for you?

RMW: I have learned that to support climate action, you really have to be interested in the science. A lot of people want to be engaged but do not care about the science. They want the big talk, the big conferences. Caring about the science is critical to the process of building credibility. Additionally, I have learned that it is important to form your own perspectives and to engage and express them openly, be it though articles, speaking engagements, or simply social media. Even if you are new in a field, keep testing your ideas out there! You should also expect surprises — for example, one of my associates is a climate change denier but I have learned over time to have meaningful conversations with them on the subject. Also, importantly, it helps to surround yourself with a community of people that have similar interests, and to exchange ideas and collaborate on projects. For example, one of my partners at Net-Zero Africa is a capital markets specialist and former central banker, while the other is a lawyer working on investment laws for the greening of financial systems. Lastly, the biggest lesson is that it is better to give than to take. In a world where many people want to amass benefit on their side, it is good to obsess over the question of “How can I contribute?” When you have a chance to exclusively either give or take, I suggest you give!

CM: Do you have any advice or suggestions for young aspiring changemakers?

RMW: I recently started reading the book, “The Four Disciplines of Execution,” and drawing from it, I think that it is important to define what your most important goals are, honestly assess your current position, and understand what you need to get there. Personally, I have also found that some of my most important work was done over many (sometimes boring) iterations, with no shine or glamour. It is important to realize that you do not always need to feel like you are doing glamourous work in order for it to be meaningful and impactful. The scientist Katalin Karikó spent decades in the lab, unknown to the public, but her years of research led to the Pfizer & BioNTech mRNA Covid-19 vaccine. One of my favorite personal mantras is “build and keep building” as I subscribe to the power of compounding.

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Global Shapers Zurich

We portray people who commit a large part of their professional and/or private life to working towards more sustainability and combatting climate change.